Saturday, February 28, 2009

Early Japanese Railways 1853-1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan

When we received Early Japanese Railways by Dan Free, we weren't quite sure what to expect. Would this oversized 288 page book be a tech-heavy examination of the nuts, bolts, and hardware involved in railroad building, heavy on the industrial jargon and light on history? Perhaps an examination of the cultural, economic, and political implications that the railways had on Japan? A collection of anecdotes and travel diaries? A coffee table book backloaded with photos and prints? Well, after an in-depth examination, it seems that Free has managed to pull off something special-a book that combines all of the above features and manages to do them justice. It's an impressively well written and even more meticulously researched work that Free has spent 25 years working towards, and a welcome new addition from Tuttle Publishing.

The book begins by dividing the timeline up into themed chapters: The Introduction Of Railway Technology (including the initial rail concession by the Tokugawa Shogunate to the United States), Intrigue, Influence, and Incompetence (the early days of British dominance of the Japanese rail industry and the planning phase of the Meiji rails), Building the First Railway (Yokohama to Shimbashi in Tokyo), Kobe To Kyoto (the first rails in central Japan), Otsu, Tsuruga, Nagahama and East to the Nobi Plain (as the network becomes more connected), Expanding and Integrating the System (more of the same), The Second Railway Mania and the Russo-Japanese War, Nationalization and Self-sufficiency, and Tokyo Station (the final link in a rail system stretching from the north of Hokkaido to the south of Kyushu). Particularly interesting to Samurai-Archives readers will be the early chapters where the political double-dealings and diplomatic blunders committed by both the Japanese and Western powers are laid out in impressive detail.

For instance, the Shogunate's rail concession to the United States (although legally binding to the Meiji government) was seen as something to be negated by the former enemies of the Tokugawa who now found themselves in power. Using the time honored Japanese techniques of stalling, failing to reply to diplomatic requests, and not addressing any of the real issues when a reply was given, the Japanese diplomat Sawa Nobuyoshi ran rings around American diplomat Charles DeLong, taking full advantage of his inexperience in the world of international relations. Instead, seasoned politico Harry Parkes of Great Britain managed to maneuver his country into overseeing and supplying (at great benefit to the coffers of English businessmen) the embryonic Japanese rail industry. Closely tied to this are the examinations of the effect of railways on the Japanese economy, and how it in turn aided the rapid development of other industries. Initially relying on foreign suppliers and engineers (not to mention cash strapped by the extravagance of British construction methods), the development of Japanese engineering and the eventual replacement of foreign experts and suppliers by 'home-grown' ones shows that the long term goal of 'sonno-joi' activists years before actually did see the light of day. In fact, Japan turned the tables, being a major exporter of rail expertise and supplies to its Asian neighbors. It's also shown how the former samurai class managed to stay among the ranks of the elite by using their government buyouts to become one of the biggest investors in railroads. The hand in hand relationship of Japanese industry with the government is shown in the switch from a national railway system to private industry and back again. The increasing dominance of the military in the political sphere can be seen by the growing influence of the army in rail planning decisions.

The effects on the culture of Japan are well documented as well. A national network of rail lines that connected every province had wide reaching repercussions, encouraging travel, trade, and nationalism. Electric lines, tram cars, and the fascinating Jinsha Tetsudo (commercially viable railways operated by manpower) are also examined in detail. Many of Japan's hot springs became famous during this era as these low cost options made them accessible to everyone. With railways and industrialization came more disposable income and a higher standard of living for the Japanese people. The special 'Imperial Trains' of the Meiji Emperor are also given a detailed examination. When the text threatens to become bogged down with facts and details, Free is always ready with an amusing story to break things up. Whether it's a fussy English traveler's complaints about trainboard amenities, early field surveys being thrown off by the refusal of samurai to remove their swords (the metal threw off the calibrations of the instruments being used), or former American President U. S. Grant being chased down a corridor of Shimbashi station in 1878 by a crowd of girls (seems Grant was the Brick McBurly of his day), Free never forgets the human side of railway development.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of technical information. Free has done his homework and if you want to know what company built what line, where it ran to, what the rail gauge was, what their company shamon looked like (along with the visual puns on kanji they incorporated), the arrangement of the running lights, the technical specifications for the locomotives and rolling stock, numbering schemes, and virtually anything else, it's a good bet you'll find it within these pages. Free has taken care not to let the hard information dominate the book, as much of this is related in picture captions and in the amazing compendium of information in the book's appendix (which also includes a helpful list of 'Dramatis Personae' with short biographies of the major players, a Japanese railway/geography lexicon with kanji, and notable documents pertaining to the rails in the political arena). That being said, one area that the book falls short in was not including a simple line drawing of a representative locomotive with rolling stock labelling the different parts of the machinery with an explanation of each part's function. As the book is aimed at a general as well as a scholarly audience, many readers will be in the dark about what many of the things being talked about mean. While most readers will eventually come to know what a '4-4-0' locomotive is, they'll be left scratching their head the first time they see it. Overall, though, Free does a good job of explaining the evolution of locomotive design and also the differences in the British, American, German, and (later) Japanese designs that were used.

The book would be perfectly capable of standing on its own as a picture book. It is loaded with quality photos and prints, both in color and sepia. Free gives these the same care he shows the rest of the book, with detailed captions pointing out things going on in the photographs that are easily missed. Any train enthusiast would be thrilled to have this book on the basis of the images and the appendix alone.

Finally, the quality of the writing and the research behind it is superb. The bibliography, although containing only a handful of Japanese works, is extensive. Free submitted his manuscript to Aoki Eiichi (famous Japanese rail historian) for review and comments, and solicited help in securing information from many museums and individuals within Japan. Unlike many books aimed at a general readership, you'll find few, if any, factual errors within its pages. How meticulous is Free? So meticulous that his book listing on Tuttle's website includes an errata page detailing the few grammatical errors made within (not that there are that many-you'll probably find more just within this review). If every author took the care that Free shows, there would be a lot less eye rolling on the Samurai Archives.

Whether one has a scholarly interest in the impact of railways on development of the Meiji era or enjoys being a dedicated 'train spotter', they'll find a lot within these covers to keep them busy. As we read through the book, it struck us that the history of the rail industry in the Meiji era was a metaphor for the country as a whole-a sentiment Free shares in his concluding remarks. "Few would be able to find a better-suited microcosm more emblematic of the development of the Japanese nation as a whole during the Meiji reign". Early Japanese Railways is a rare example of a work that combines technical excellence and a plethora of information with a lively writing style that always gives the human element its due. Combined with an excellent graphical presentation of hundreds of rare photographs, advertising material, timetables, maps, woodblock prints, and postcards, the book provides a fascinating glimpse of Japan as it moved from self-imposed seclusion to being the 'most Western of Eastern nations'.

Early Japanese Railways: 1853-1914 is available through Amazon at the Samurai Archives store HERE. We'll also be running an interview with the book's author, Dan Free, within the next month or so.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800

If you are looking for a title that will scare the bejeezus out of any but the most academically minded folks, look no further than Herman Ooms' cover. Now add to that a little understood Chinese style ceremonial garment which spans a hardback cover including over 353 pages (87 of which make up the notes, bibliography, and indices), and you have little fear of the novice historian sullying your hallowed tome with his ungrateful lack of comprehension. Those willing to brave such daunting warning signs of academic minutiae, however, will find themselves in a quite interesting and engaging discussion of the turbulent Asuka and Nara periods, when much of the groundwork for later Japanese society was laid down.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a book for one who balks at technical language. Ooms's use of such terms as "autochthons" and "allochthons" to describe "native" and "foreign" Japanese may strike some as unnecessarily cumbersome, but Ooms makes a case for the use of more technically precise and neutral terms to describe a history that is already overlaid with so much political bias. He breaks up an otherwise monotonous technical discussion with a subdued humor that keeps you consistently interested.

Herman Ooms begins with a description of what he terms the Temmu dynasty--the lineage of rulers starting with Temmu, who came to power in a bloody coup and civil war, and ending with Kōnin and Kammu, the lineal descendants of Temmu's brother and predecessor, Tenji. He goes on to show how Temmu--the first ruler of Japan to use the term "Tennō"--combined traditional and foreign religio-political symbolism to legitimize his reign and that of his successors. He emphasizes the role of the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki as further legitimizing documents; the compilation of the former overseen by Temmu's own son, Prince Toneri.

In explaining the complex inter-familial ties and squabbles that mark the Asuka and Nara periods, Ooms provides a helpful chart on cardboard in the back of the book, perforated to allow you to remove it and use it as a guide as you read. This proves an invaluable asset as you read through the convoluted history of royal scheming and succession. Inextricably intertwined with the origins of the symbols of imperial power were the political struggles of the royal and noble families. Over a span of only a century, we see a total of ten official rulers--one of them ruling twice--with the last being only two generations removed from the first. On the back of the handy genealogical chart is a second diagram, this one an attempt to untangle the complex political plots that crisscross the period.

An example of the religio-political maneuverings that Ooms covers is the strange case of Empress Kōken/Shōtoku and her Buddhist concomitant consort, Dōkyō. Not only is Kōken the first recorded woman to be appointed crown prince, but she also takes the throne later as Empress Shōtoku without renouncing the Buddhist vows she had earlier taken. In addition, she appoints the priest Dōkyō, her consort in all but name, as Dajō-Daijin who, in turn, saturates the government with his Buddhist cohorts. Things are looking up for Dōkyō, who is poised to become the next heir-apparent, despite his lack of a royal pedigree.

The climax of his explosive rise to power comes in a message from the god of the syncretic and opportunistic Usa Hachiman shrine, who appears to endorse the Buddhist clergyman as the future ruler of Yamato. After an uproar from the nobility, however, it is quickly found that the deity was misinterpreted and Dōkyō was not in fact the kami-approved future sovereign. This is only one instance of the complex interplay of politics and religion in this dynamic period.

This book is a must-read for those interested in this exciting and tumultuous, if brief, period. Ooms explores the foundations of the Japanese state and the interplay between politics and religion. It is a deep and weighty subject, made digestible through gentle sips of a dry and erudite wit.

For more information, see the review posted in the S-A Bookstore, hosted by Amazon.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Samurai of Ayutthaya

Title: Samurai of Ayutthaya: Yamada Nagamasa, Japanese Warrior and Merchant in Early Seventeenth-Century Siam
Author: Cesare Polenghi
Publisher: White Lotus Press
ISBN 978-974-480-147-0

When I began browsing the Siam Society bookstore in downtown Bangkok the other day, I did not intend on making any new purchases. However, how could I pass up this small, white treatise on what has become a personal quest in this sweltering tropical country? And in reading it, I see I'm not alone.

In Samurai of Ayutthaya lies the current culmination of Polenghi's work on sorting through the fact and fiction of one of Japan's most famous merchant-adventurers of the early 17th century, while expanding upon the early Japanese international entrepreneurs who flourished in the late Sengoku and early Edo periods, prior to the implementation of harsh restrictions and closing of the country. Some may remember an earlier paper of his, written in 2004, entitled "The Japanese in Ayudhaya in the First Half of the 17th Century" (hosted on the S-A Citadel Japanese History Site). He has clearly delved further with his research, and he presents it here in a concise and readable manner. Perhaps my biggest issue is the question: what has he left for the rest of us?

As it stands, Polenghi certainly appears to have made use of all available scholarship on the issue of Yamada Nagamasa, and he puts forth a strong case that he was a real and important individual in Ayutthaya and Japanese-Thai relations. He also delineates fact from fiction, putting much of Nagamasa's later praise in the proper context of pre-war Japanese nationalism, countering with information from the Siamese and Europeans who were there during, or just after, Nagamasa's term as head of the Nihonmachi (or Baan Yippun as it is known in Thai). He also goes into the question of the general presence of the Japanese in the waters of Southeast Asia, describing the inroads they made and challenges they faced as they briefly connected with the larger international community.

If I were to admit any fault in the book, it would only be its first chapter, and that for personal reasons. Polenghi starts out with an admittedly fictional account of Nagamasa's life; this felt out of place in a book that is otherwise about drawing the facts out of a tangled narrative overlaid with anachronistic and unverifiable accounts. I would prefer it stand alone, perhaps as an expanded work, or something akin to Shiba Ryotaro's treatment of Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Regarding the rest of the book, however, Polenghi does a terrific job of laying out the story of Nagamasa as he appears in the historical record. He begins with a background of the times in which Nagamasa lived, and the relationship between Japan and Siam, and continues to lay out what evidence remains of the records. Regrettably, most of the best sources were lost when the Burmese sacked and burned Ayutthaya in the 18th century, but enough foreign correspondence remains to plausibly reconstruct what happened. We trace Nagamasa's life, from birth to death, as closely as one could hope. We also catch a detailed glimpse of the lives of the merchants of the red seal ships, which plied the seas in the early 17th century.

I also found the work well annotated, but not in a way that could be considered confusing. Polenghi is also honest about the reliability of his sources, and shows an admirable preference for the more trustworthy texts. That doesn't mean he won't drop in a few legendary tidbits every now and then, but he is clear regarding their origins.

Towards the end, we also gt a taste of how Nagamasa has been handled by his fellow Japanese, particularly in regards to the PR campaign that thrust him center-stage as a symbol of Japanese warrior-explorers in the politically charged pre-war era.

This is definitely a must-have book for anyone interested in Yamada Nagamasa, but it is also recommended for anyone interested in Japan's foreign relations in the early 17th century--a dynamic age when intrepid merchants and soldiers-of-fortune were spreading abroad just as their home government was retreating from the rest of the world.

If you are interested in buying this book, you can help out the S-A website by purchasing it and other books through the Samurai Archives Amazon Store.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Jōi and Pain: Trying to Make Sense of Tokugawa Nariaki

Tokugawa Nariaki: Devil or Saint? Who knows?!?

If anybody was the living embodiment of Mitogaku and all of its inherent contradictions, it had to be the retired lord of Mito himself, Tokugawa Nariaki. Outspoken, brash, lecherous and just plain clever, Nariaki was certainly one of the more colorful personalities that strutted across the early Bakumatsu stage. In the theater-in-the-round that Japanese politics devolved into as a result of the Perry expedition, all eyes were on Nariaki, who certainly dominated a large part of the action on center-stage. Wherever he went, whatever he said or wrote, controversy and riotous debate followed. He had a powerful voice that projected his message to all corners of the empire, no doubt rankling the ears of the Bakufu and certain powerful fudai daimyo. However, Nariaki’s soliloquies on how to remedy Japan’s ills and successfully deal with the ‘foreign issue’ found an adoring audience among reform-minded daimyo, courtiers within the halls of the imperial palace, and among all strata of samurai and commoners alike. Yet just what was Tokugawa Nariaki’s message?

To a lot of us living in the here and now, at first glance, the message looks garbled if not just downright confusing. Trying to decipher the message has led to many of those now famous ‘Bakumatsu headaches’ that some of us have been complaining to each other about recently. How can it not? Nariaki was a walking bag of contradictions. It’s a lot like some of the contradictions we all studied in high school world history classes about Europe in the age of ‘enlightened despotism’. I think it is safe to say that Nariaki was an enlightened feudal lord cut from a mold very similar those of the ‘enlightened despots’ of the European variety, and in some ways, he’s even more difficult to analyze than Frederick the Great, Louis XIV, or Catherine the Great. When it comes to Tokugawa Nariaki, “pro-reform/reactionary conservative; xenophobic/eager to import foreign ideas and technology; pro-Tokugawa/pro-Imperialist” are all words and phrases that are commonly used to describe him. To unravel his message, let’s take a look at his policies and what he stood for and in the process clarify some of these contradictions.

Pro-Reform/Reactionary Conservative Nariaki’s reforms were focused on the preservation of han unity and harmony on a local level and national unity and harmony on a macro level. As written by Aizawa and others, Nariaki firmly believed that harmony could only be maintained if all classes of society respected the existing social hierarchy and political institutions. And the political institutions and social orders were dependent on being sanctioned by the imperial throne—the source of all legitimacy in Japan. Therefore, full-hearted and proper respect must be shown to the emperor in order for Japan to enjoy the benefits of peace and prosperity. Without the proper level of respect being shown for the throne or the political and social orders, Japan would sink into chaos and misery. To Nariaki, the famines and the resulting turmoil of the Tempō period validated his Mitogaku inspired political theory. This is evident in a memorial Nariaki wrote to the Bakufu in 1839 that William Beasley quoted in The Meiji Restoration: “When superiors ignore the hunger and death of farmers in bad years, when they are remiss in making military preparations, when the samurai are weak and idle, then inferiors hate their superiors and do not fear them.” This is in reference to the peasant revolts that were rocking the nation at the time. Taking this a step further, a letter written to Mizuno Tadakuni in 1842, that also appears in Beasley’s book aptly sums up the essence of Nariaki’s beliefs about political and social order: “If the shogun takes the lead in showing respect for the throne, the whole country will inevitably unite in so doing; but it is vital that in this each should observe his proper place. The samurai shows respect for his lord, the lord shows respect for the shogun, the shogun shows respect for the emperor. To forget one’s place and take matters into one’s own hands is an evil act, worthy of the name of rebel.”

Thus, as we can see, Nariaki’s views quite neatly fit inside the Mitogaku interpretation of the Confucian social hierarchy triangle. And to help ensure that merchants remembered their proper place in the pyramid’s lowest rung, Nariaki enacted strict anti-commerce policies that were designed to discourage the growth of the merchant class’ power as well as to help keep farmers on the land, rather than try their luck as shop keepers or traders in urban centers. As for samurai, Nariaki felt that their decline in fighting ability and moral righteousness were due in part to commercial-related activities, giving him another reason to crack down on the merchant class. He, like Shimazu Nariakira, was also against the giving of two swords and a surname to merchants who sought to buy samurai status. It was an outrage to allow bushi status to be bought. And by allowing this sort of thing to happen, samurai morale, morals as well as ethics would erode.

So, what is the substance of Nariaki’s domestic political reforms? He seems like a classic Confucian conservative, does he not? If you agree with that statement, than it shouldn’t surprise you that in essence, Nariaki strove to bring his han back into a traditional Confucian framework that was envisioned by Ieyasu, but of course, with the emperor at the very top of the pyramid. Strong and just leadership combined with the enforcement and study of strict moral and ethical guidelines that constantly reminded all classes of their place, duties and obligation to respect society’s structure, would serve as a bulwark against the erosion of domain strength. Nariaki believed, as did many of his fellow daimyo, that if enactment of this ideal ‘reactionary’ neo-Confucian social structure could be replicated in every han, all would be well and Japan’s domestic troubles, as experienced in the Tempō period, would not and could not occur again.

In nearly all that he did, Nariaki strove to instill his ‘reactionary’ domestic reforms in a way that would preserve his ability as an individual daimyo and that of his beloved han to operate as independently as possible from Bakufu control. This makes perfectly good sense if you agree with Beasley that a feudal daimyo like Nariaki only had three things to be afraid of: Bakufu intrusion from above, peasant rebellion from below and foreign attack from outside. Makes you think Nariaki is really in it for himself, doesn’t it?

Xenophobic/Eager to Import Foreign Ideas and Technology It was Mitogaku that first coined the catchphrase sonnō jōi, and as spokesman for the movement, it is clear that Nariaki didn’t want Japan’s ports opened to the West nor did he want foreigners on Japanese soil in any large numbers. However, Nariaki wasn’t opposed to the importation of foreign ideas, education and technology--if it could be used to strengthen Mito and the various han throughout Japan. Again, Shimazu Nariakira, daimyo of Satsuma, held similar views to Nariaki—after all, he too, was a follower of Mitogaku, Nariakira built Japan’s first steam powered ship, established a telegraph line, started making modern weapons and other products—all aimed at strengthening Satsuma’s military and economic strength. Mito, not having the financial means as Satsuma, followed similar lines, but Nariaki’s economic view of the world was more agrarian-centric, as rice, not industrial products, served as the backbone of the Japanese economy and society. Nevertheless, from the 1840s, Nariaki argued to have the Bakufu’s prohibition on building large-ocean going ships overturned as he felt that there was a need for a strong navy. And once the Bakufu reversed course on the building of large blue water ships after Perry’s first expedition, almost immediately, Mito ordered one of Japan’s first western warships from the Dutch. Nariaki also tirelessly called for an overhaul of the baku-han military system in order to ensure Japan could enact jōi when the time came. In other words, it was acceptable to hold foreigners in contempt, but their goods, services and ideas, if they could be used to defeat or hold at bay those same foreigners, were perfectly okay! I just can’t help to wonder how if Nariaki really felt that in order to import all of these concepts and build up Japan’s defensive capabilities, was the open port of Nagasaki, along with its heavy restrictions placed on the Chinese and Dutch traders, enough to guarantee a big enough trickle of practical ‘barbarian’ ideas and goods?

Pro-Tokugawa/Pro-Imperialist This is the last contradiction that I’d like to take a look at. We know that Nariaki was probably the loudest daimyo when it came to preaching loyalty to the emperor, as espoused in Mitogaku. As a Tokugawa, and a descendent of Ieyasu and a blood relative of the shogun, it may strike people as odd that Nariaki sought to put the emperor above the shogun in the social and political order. But that’s exactly what he did. He even would go out of his way to point out, as he did in a letter to Abe Masahiro in 1846, that although Japan had been a ‘Tokugawa’ country since Sekigahara, there was no law or guideline saying that it should always remain this way. If the Bakufu failed to act to secure the safety of Japan in a time of crisis, others, such as some tozama daimyo, may accuse the Bakufu of failing to live up to its obligations, and an overthrow of the Tokugawa could then become a reality. To avoid this from happening, Nariaki argued that remaining passive and awaiting the outcome of events before making decisions was not an option. He continuously pushed for more proactive policy-making and planning on the part of the Bakufu.

Looking at the above paraphrased letter, it makes Nariaki look like soothsayer, as what he said could happen, eventually did in 1868. And it is clear, that although Nariaki noisily advocated that everything and everyone was subservient to the imperial throne, he did not want to see the Tokugawa fall from power. After all, Nariaki was a Tokugawa and he owed his own life of privilege to the very system that was in place. He clearly did not want the system to fail!

Whether regarded as an devil a saint or a walking bag of contradictions, Tokugawa Nariaki is truly one of the more interesting, yet puzzling figures of the Bakumatsu era.